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So What Do You Do, Matt Welch?

An opinionated iconoclast takes on the LA Times opinion page — as one of its editors

January 22, 2007
MattWelch Matt Welch has spent nearly two decades avoiding newsrooms of the so-called main stream media, only to position himself right in the middle of it, as Assistant Opinion Editor at the Los Angeles Times. He started his career by spending eight years in Central Europe, where he co-founded the region's first post-communist English-language newspaper, worked as UPI's Slovakia correspondent, and managed a business journal in Budapest. Back in the U.S., he's freelanced for the Columbia Journalism Review, L.A. Daily News, Orange County Register, L.A. Weekly, ESPN.com, Salon, Wired News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Hardball Times, AlterNet, The Walrus, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications, on topics ranging from media to international affairs to all things California to baseball. From July 2002 to October 2004, he wrote a regular "Letter from California" column for the Review section of Canada's National Post newspaper.

Welch joined Reason, the culture/politics magazine (and website) for "Free Minds, Free Markets." He was Associate Editor (October 2004-January 2006), regular media columnist (April 2004-April 2006, according to the magic of magazine lead times); pinch-hitting writer/editor when other staffers were on book sabbaticals (stints in 2003 and 2004); freelance contributor since late 2001, and longtime contributor to the award-winning Hit & Run weblog.

At Reason, Welch was encouraged to freelance for other publications, and after writing a half-dozen columns for the LA Times, he met Andres Martinez. Martinez offered him a three-month "visiting fellowship" to sit on the editorial board. "Not long after, they described a new position that didn't yet exist, where I'd sit on the board & write editorials, but also edit the things, and also write the occasional op-ed, and also solicit & edit op-eds," Welch says.

Welch also maintains his personal blog, and was one of the first to write about blogging back in 1999 for the Online Journalism Review, entitled "What Do You Tell Your Boss?" Since his tenure at the LA Times, the paper has launched a number of blogs with more on the way.

Welch has avoided the labels of conservative, liberal, libertarian, commie-pinko, thus far in his career. As an editor in the Opinion section of one the country's largest newspapers, he' s well positioned to piss off all sides, equally. He emailed with FishbowlLA editor Kate Coe.

Name: Matt Welch
Position: Assitant Editor, Editorial Pages
Publication: The Los Angeles Times
Company: Tribune Co.
Education: Lack thereof hasn't hurt me none.
Hometown: Born in Bellflower, raised in Long Beach, reside in Silver Lake (going on eight years).

How did you get into journalism?
By screwing up the courage to walk inside the offices of the country's best college newspaper. (In the same year, incidentally, that the paper dug up enough dirt on Mickey Kaus' uncle to eventually help get him convicted for embezzlement.)

What is your average media day like?
Wake up and kiss the hottest French journalist in California. It's all downhill from there....

The clock radio is set to KCRW, so I have r-e-a-l-l-y boring news dreams, usually involving Daniel Schorr searching for a glass of water. Unseal my eyes with the hometown paper. Watch my wife giggle while devouring the New York Post. I don't giggle.

Then I'll check our section's web landing pageand blog to make sure everything's cool, and read the new comments. Followed by a three-minute tour of the local-news blogs --
L.A. Observed
Mayor Sam
Rough & Tumble

Martini Republic...
one or two among
LAist
Blogging.la
LAVoice
barky gal
etc.

If I wake up early (unlikely) I might also catch a glimpse of
Wonkette
Reason's Hit & Run
Halos Heaven
6-4-2
Drudge.

Then it's off to the bus, reading either Hoy or The New Yorker or Reason on the way. Grab the Daily News and whatever print weekly on the way to my desk.

At the office, the Internet is mostly a search tool, though when I have time I might zip through the permalinks listed on our blog. I usually turn the teevee on around noon, watch CNN or C-SPAN with the volume off until the sun goes down, then it's baseball or basketball. Back home, I'm lucky if I arrive in time for The Colbert Report. The only other news program that occasionally interests me is the Hal Fishman Drama Hour.

Contrast and compare magazine vs. daily newspaper?
In my experience anyway, the biggest difference is between 940 editorial employees and 10 (even though my department, which is pretty well sealed, only has around 20). That is just a huge discrepancy, and affects everything. There's also the (related) difference between working in an office and having 10 meetings a week, and working at home and maybe having 10 meetings a year. By phone.

You definitely get your calls back quicker here, and are roughly 800% more likely to be visited in your office by Mikhail Gorbachev, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the head of the Coast Guard, or a leetle robot controlled by Eric Garcetti. But you're also much more likely to begin interactions with readers by them screaming insults at you.

Work-wise, at Reason I blogged more (though that's beginning to change here), and always wrote under my own name. Here I write most often in the Institutional Voice, which is a pretty big difference (and kind of theoretically weird, given my personal history, though I rarely think about it that way). But even though we had plenty of daily content at Reason, there is just no deadline as emotionally satisfying as that of a print daily newspaper. I love the things; cringe when we stumble, dance a jig when we stick a landing.

How does the media attention on the LA Times/Tribune story affect you?
Very little, truthfully. For a while I was following (and gently ribbing) the whole Manhappenin' Beach Project over on our Opinion L.A. blog, but at the end of the day, I'm happy they're trying to reimagine the paper; otherwise obsessing about future ownership is kind of pointless, ya know? It's sort of like arguing passionately in December about which baseball team is going to win the division ... amusing sometimes, sure, but there ain't nothing you can do about it. Meanwhile there's a paper to put out, and fun to be had. I figure our lives will not change much unless and until Eli Geffen-Burkle walks through that door and tells us we have to, I dunno, wear Dodgers jerseys or something.

Proudest moment in your career?
Probably the January 1994 issue of Prognosis, the paper I co-founded in Prague, coinciding with the visit of Bill Clinton and the ceremony that essentially kick-started what would eventually become the expansion of NATO. It was called "The Unbearable Largeness of Bill," and that headline was by far the worst thing about it; the rest was just bloody terrific and fun -- investigative pieces on the Czech family Clinton stayed with when bumming around the country as a college kid, a compare/contrast of Clinton/Havel's philandering, pot-smoking and views on death; a handy playing card-style guide to the five biggest thugs in post-commie Europe; incredibly detailed & sober analyses of post-Cold War security issues, a handful of dynamite and diverse opinion columns, a "Hack's Guide to Prague" for the visiting journalists, and on and on.

Our paper was on its last legs (even though it would somehow limp along for another 15 months); we were all pulling 23-hour days, lubricating the paste-up process with absinthe, coming up with genius off-the-cuff ideas at the last minute. And I had just emerged from a weeklong stay in the hospital with a ruined back, and was in the process of recording an album. We were totally exhausted, but the issue just soared, and was praised (among other places) on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.

Who's the biggest influence on your work?
A three-way tie -- Bill James, Hunter Thompson, and Vaclav Havel.

What's the coolest thing/person/ story you've worked on/with?
The technically accurate answer to your question is Mejla Hlavsa of the legendary Plastic People of the Universe, though I only saw him play with the terrific Pulnoc and the you-had-to-have-been-there Velvet Revival Band.

If you weren't a journalist/writer, what would you do?
Try (and fail) to become a successful recording artist; then end up as some sad middle-aged busker playing covers in various foreign bars.

Work's over, kitchen's clean, no deadlines looming--how do you kick back? Music, book, DVD--what's your relaxation preference? (And please don't tell me you go for a nice 5 mile run.)
What is this science fiction you speak of?.... I enjoy a glass or three of wine, seeing a movie with ma belle femme, having a Malo dinner with pals, or immersing myself in the warm minutiae of obscure baseball statistics.



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